(Yesterday, I wrote about an episode in John McGraw’s career while managing the Baltimore Orioles in 1901. The date may have confused some readers who recall that the current Orioles team began play in 1954 after the St. Louis Browns left for Baltimore and adopted a new name. I hope this post clears things up a bit.)
By Glen Sparks
Baseball in the American Association began play in 1882, the same year that Thomas Edison flipped a switch to light parts of lower Manhattan and Robert Ford fatally shot Jesse James in the back. The Association aimed to compete with the National League for supremacy in a game that was becoming more popular every year. One of the original teams was the Baltimore Orioles.
The Cincinnati Red Stockings and the St. Louis Browns vaulted to the top of the Association hierarchy. The Orioles won some, lost some and dropped out of the league in 1889.
One year later, they were back in, replacing the Brooklyn Gladiators. This time, things would be different. First off, the American Association would fold after the 1891 campaign. The N.L., founded in 1876, simply was the more powerful, more established league, albeit just a few years older.
Some of the best AA teams had been jumping leagues for several seasons. The Pittsburgh Pirates left in 1886, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms (now the Los Angeles Dodgers) and the Cincinnati Red Stocking (eventually shortened to “Reds,”) switched over in 1889 and so on. The Orioles made their move in 1892.
The National League version of the Baltimore Orioles fared better than the American Association version. Player/manager Ned Hanlon led the team to three straight first-place finishes (1894-96). Hanlon, from Montville, Conn., sometimes called “the father of modern baseball,” gets credited for inventing the hit-and-run and the Baltimore chop, a strategy of hitting the ball hard onto the ground, hoping for a high bounce and running to first base before the fielder can make a play.
Top Oriole players included “Wee Willie” Keeler, a 5-foot-4 ½ inch right-fielder who liked to “hit ‘em where they ain’t,” fireplug third baseman John McGraw (yep, that very same John McGraw) and hard-hitting left-fielder Joe Kelley. The team gained a reputation for tough play, sharpened spikes and potty mouths. Pitcher “Pud” Galvin said ““I amastonished that a quiet, unassuming fellow like [Baltimore manager] Ned Hanlon ever tolerated it in his club.”
In 1899, the Orioles fell from their usual elite position to fourth place. It didn’t help that the league had sent some of Baltimore’s best players to Brooklyn as a way to shore up that team.
Following the season, the National League dropped four franchises, including the Orioles, to form an eight-team association. The league wanted to “cut its losses,” writes John Thorn in his book Baseball in the Garden of Eden, and increase interest in the pennant race by having just seven runners-up rather than 11. That move ended Baltimore’s tour in the N.L.
Onto the American League
The American League was looking to expand. The A.L., another upstart association, started as the Western League in 1885. Led by Ban Johnson, the Western League became the American League in 1900 and an established major league by 1901. Some of the early squads included the Detroit Tigers, the Sioux City Cornhuskers, the Toledo White Stockings and the Minneapolis Millers.
Johnson wanted to bring in some east coast squads to his mostly Midwest league. The Philadelphia A’s, Boston Americans (later the Red Sox) and the Baltimore Orioles were added. The Kansas City Blues left for Washington, D.C., and became the Senators.
McGraw, the infielder on the first incarnation of the Orioles, was named manager of the new Orioles squad. His club finished 68-65 and in fifth place. By 1902, McGraw had begun feuding with Johnson and quit the team during the season to go to the National League and manage the New York Giants, where he would enjoy much of his fame as one of the game’s great figures. The Orioles finished 50-88 and in last place. Wilbert Robinson, later the manager of the Brooklyn Robins (formerly the Bridegrooms) took over for McGraw.
And that would be it for major league baseball in Baltimore until the Browns moved east. The Orioles left for New York City after 1902. They became the New York Highlanders. By 1913, they were widely known as the New York Yankees, soon to be baseball’s most formidable franchise.
The Baltimore Orioles Part III
As mentioned, the third version of the Orioles has its origins in St. Louis, or rather Milwaukee. Yes, as the Brewers. The original Milwaukee Brewers played in, you guessed it, the old Western League. They competed for one lame-duck season in the American League before moving south to St. Louis.
The Browns became something of a laughingstock while in their adopted hometown – “St. Louis–first in shoes, first in booze, last in the American League.” They finished in the second-half of the league 41 times. Only six times did they draw crowds of more than 500,000. (To be fair, major league attendance then was not what it is today. The Cardinals, who draw more than 3 million fans every season, did not draw 1 million fans in any season until 1946.)
The Browns finished 54-100 in their final year in St. Louis. They were near financial collapse, too, supposedly running out of baseballs at times. Owner Bill Veeck didn’t have a choice. He sold his 80 percent stake in the team to some Baltimore investors for $2.5 million.
In Baltimore, the team finally got going. The current brand of Orioles has won six pennants and three World Series (1966, 1970 and 1983). Great players like Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken have worn the black and orange. Earl Weaver compiled a .583 winning percentage (1,480-1,060) in his 17 years as the Orioles’ manager.
Just to tidy up
Let’s go over a few more details.
Following its run as a major league baseball league, the American Association regrouped and became a Triple-A league from 1902-62 and then again from 1969-97. The league has since disbanded.
The Orioles didn’t completely go away after moving to New York. Baltimore’s entry in the Triple-A International League played from 1903-53 as the Orioles. (It might be good to know, and you’ve probably already figured this out, that the Baltimore oriole is Maryland’s state bird.)
Oh, and then there was the Baltimore Orioles minor league hockey team that skated from 1932 through 1942 …